Is it just me, or does it seem like most filmmakers aren’t trying very hard? It takes a lot of work to make a movie, no one’s arguing otherwise, but in service of what? Sometimes it feels like most filmmakers are only willing to produce a distraction from life’s problems, or a meaningful experience that’s so confrontational that it’s hardly any fun at all. Why does it seem like hardly any movies are trying to provide world-class entertainment and genuinely enlighten at the same time?
In other words, why can’t there be more movies like Gravity? Gravity takes a simple concept (albeit one that’s terribly complex to film), and transforms it into a transcendent example of everything cinema can accomplish. It strives for greatness, and what’s more it achieves greatness. Gravity is an exhilarating and borderline profound masterpiece.
Sandra Bullock plays rookie astronaut Ryan Stone. In the middle of a routine spacewalk, Ryan and veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) are stranded in orbit after a cloud of high-speed debris destroys their shuttle and neutralizes all communication with Mission Control. Low on oxygen, they struggle to survive against impossible odds. Plotwise… that’s it. Gravity has a simple premise. But so does Jaws, if you reduce it to a “killer shark attacks beach bunnies” synopsis.
Director Alfonso Cuarón, working with co-writer/son Jonás Cuarón, keeps the sequence of events in Gravity simple, because being stranded in outer space is enough when the sheer horror of it is made clear. By imbuing Gravity with a mindblowing sense of emptiness, godlike scale and absolute panic, Cuarón turns Ryan Stone into the ultimate poor bastard hero. Very few protagonists in the history of cinema have been as royally screwed as the heroine of Gravity, turning every second of the film into a nightmare of overwhelming obstacles.
That nightmare is so terrific, and so terrifying, that the tiniest of victories are met with an audible gasp of relief. I spent half the film worrying that those victories were too good to be true, and that Gravity would end with Stone floating in the ether, a cold and dying figure fantasizing about one last sliver of hope, a sliver that Cuarón would remove at the last possible second, leaving his rapt audience in a state of perpetual despair. But Gravity isn’t an apocalyptic film. It’s about the importance of striving to survive, and just as importantly live, in the face of unparalleled disaster, be it personal tragedy or external strife.
Only by tackling that disaster dead on could Gravity be more than a breathtaking suspense yarn, and that’s exactly what Cuarón has done. Because if Ryan Stone can persevere, even temporarily, in the face of the events Gravity has in store for her, then surely we can too. Human frailty, loss and self-pity – accentuated by Stone’s sad, realistic backstory – can be used to evolve into a higher state of being. A more assured, beautiful and powerful life, in which that which happens to us doesn’t have to define us. Our will can matter. The spectacular scope of Cuarón’s canvas places this seemingly simple concept into sharp relief, making the simple seem suddenly, deeply profound.
I remember this feeling. Exiting a movie theater shaken by a film’s overwhelming and fully achieved ambition is a rare experience, but I’ve lived it before. Seeing The Fellowship of the Ring on opening night, immediately aware that the experience of watching true greatness achieved was alarmingly rare, and would not soon be repeated. I’m too young to remember it, but I imagine the physical shakiness I experienced stumbling out of the theater showing Gravity was probably shared by those lucky souls who saw Star Wars on opening night, or Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Sandra Bullock has never been this good. George Clooney has never been this ideally cast. Alfonso Cuarón, who has worked on-screen wonders before in A Little Princess and Children of Men, has gone above and beyond expectation. Gravity is an instant classic if any film can be. See it as soon as you can.